Like the Giants, Pablo Sandoval not ready to be counted out

In his productive comeback with the Giants, Pablo Sandoval isn't ready to say it's over until someone says it's over. Jay Anderson/Icon Sportswire

Twelve years into his big league career, Pablo Sandoval is used to being labeled. Some of those labels were ones he dreamed of earning as a young boy in Venezuela. Major league player, which he achieved in 2008. MVP candidate, which he did by finishing seventh in the voting in his first full season in 2009. All-Star, which he earned in 2010 and 2011. World Series champion, which he earned as a key part of the San Francisco Giants' title-winning teams of 2010, 2012 and 2014.

But some of the other labels that have been applied to him have been harder to take. Mediocre. Below average. And worst of all: fat.

It was enough to make people forget the Kung Fu Panda nickname hung on him toward the start of his career. When Sandoval was released by the Boston Red Sox in 2017, he was instead labeled one of the game's greatest financial mistakes made in free agency. After just 161 games in his injury-ridden Boston career spread across parts of three seasons, the Red Sox opted to designate him for assignment, deciding they were better off eating the remaining $49.5 million salary they owed him.

The veteran third baseman was widely mocked for his weight and poor performance with the Red Sox, for whom he barely contributed, hitting just .237/.286/.360 with 14 home runs. It was a far cry from what the Red Sox had envisioned when they offered him a five-year, $95 million contract in 2015 after he had won that third ring with the Giants.

After the Red Sox let him go, Sandoval wondered if he had anything left to offer after his career had been reduced to a new and perhaps final label: a $95 million mistake.

"Being let go by the Red Sox hurt, especially because I was coming back from an injury and going through so many things in my life," Sandoval explained. "I am a person who loves this sport. This is my passion. Besides my family, there is nothing I love more, and baseball has given me many blessings.

"But I also put in a lot of work and made many sacrifices, and I wasn't ready to leave the game. I wanted to prove to everyone, especially my children and my family, and set the example for my children, that in spite of the things that may happen to you, you always have to fight on."

Fight on he did. After missing virtually all of the 2016 season with a shoulder injury for which he had to undergo surgery, he felt that he was finally healthy and able to contribute. He knew he still had baseball left in him. The Red Sox did not agree.

"Being in Boston was a learning experience," Sandoval said, having spent all of his career up to that point with the Giants since signing with them as a 16-year-old out of Venezuela in 2003. "The truth is that it was a great organization, and I have nothing against [the Red Sox]. And the fans, they are demanding, they want to see their players contribute. They want to see the best of them. And I learned from that.

"And, of course, lots of comments were made. I was mocked many times for my weight, but I learned to use all that as inspiration and as a learning experience."

But after being cut loose midseason in 2017, who would want him? That's when he found out that the Giants, and especially manager Bruce Bochy, still believed in him. Whether it was just nostalgia for what had been, Sandoval committed himself from that point forward to once again have fun in every at-bat and ignore the rest.

"Despite all the things that I'd went through, the Giants always trusted me and they gave me the blessing of returning home. I am trying to make the best out of this second chance," Sandoval said.

But that second chance was not a shot at being an everyday player. The Giants might have brought him back, but not with the same responsibilities.

"It was a learning opportunity because I had to start from scratch, forget what I had accomplished in the past and now try to do something different and accept a new role [as a bench player]," Sandoval observed. "That has been difficult for me, to accept that role after playing every day or wanting to be an everyday player.

"But I am enjoying myself to the fullest. And I do that with a lot of love for those people who are in that office, that from the first they opened the doors to me."

"That office" means both the front office that gave him his first break to reach the majors but also the manager's office that belongs to Bochy, the man who has managed Sandoval during the entirety of his Giants career. The skipper whose three World Series rings eventually will put him in Cooperstown. And the manager who already has announced that this will be his last season in the dugout.

"I think [Bochy] has been a very important factor in me being here today," Sandoval noted. "He has always fought for me and put his feet to the fire for me, and I know I owe this second chance to him, and I love giving it all for him in what will be his final year."

Sandoval isn't the only one enjoying this second chance. The Giants are benefiting from his slugging .509 while spot-starting at first base (15 times) and third base (36 times) -- but most often entering the game as Bochy's top bat off the bench, making 49 pinch-hit appearances so far this season. Despite being relegated to a part-time role, he has committed to enjoying each day with the Giants like it could be his last. After having come so close to seeing his career come to an end after Boston cut him loose, he knows that's the truth. His tenure with the Giants could end any day. And with Bochy gone at the end of the year, he knows his future with the organization is far from guaranteed.

"Any opportunity that you get in this game, you have to enjoy with love and professionalism. And you also have to have fun. If you don't have fun, there's no reason to do this," Sandoval said. "No matter what people say, no matter the comments being made around you, you have to persevere and turn a deaf ear. You do it for yourself, you do it for the love of the game and for the love of those around you."